Miles Morales is the poster child for Marvel Comics in the 2010s, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse knows exactly why. In the inaugural adventure of what is sure to be an expansive franchise, Spider-Verse introduces us to Morales, the second Spider-Man, as well as a whole host of other Spider-related characters in a rollicking adventure that is, literally, like nothing you’ve ever seen. It’s fabulous just for the fact that it exists, and for the fact that it is willing and brave enough to dig into aspects of Spider-Man, and superheroes, that have yet to make it to the big screen.
Some editorializing on Miles: The character came into existence in 2011 when Brian Michael Bendis, second only to Stan Lee in his influence on Marvel, killed off his decade-old alternate-universe “Ultimate” Peter Parker character in a story titled Death of Spider-Man. Bendis’s Ultimate Spider-Man was and is the Marvel series for me. It got me into comics. So when they killed Peter and replaced him, I was pretty invested. And pleased. Because Miles Morales was the first of many attempts Marvel made, in a post-Marvel Cinematic Universe world, to make their in-print intellectual property match the world that was falling in love with their movies. They had five decades of predominantly white male characters, with the occasional Black Panther, Blade, Ultimate Nick Fury or … well. Not a lot to go off of.
Enter Jane Foster as Thor (in Jason Aaron’s tremendous, still-running Thor story). Enter Falcon becoming Captain America, and Riri Williams becoming Iron Heart (also by Bendis). Enter Captain Marvel, a rebirth for the Carol Danvers character, whose main appeal for three previous decades was her stripper-like costume. Enter Squirrel Girl, Ms. America and Ms. Marvel. Those who are really invested in comic books and comic-book publication history can rattle off the trends of each decade and ponder their genesis, but there’s no question that the 2010s have been about the expansion and pursuit of a more diverse market. And there’s no question that Marvel’s part in it started with Miles Morales.
And Into the Spider-Verse is all about the nature of Spider-Man as a cultural icon. It’s obsessed with both Miles and why Miles is such a keystone character of the Marvel Comics line — what he represents, both to the pop-culture community at large and to the idea of Spider-Man. Why is Spider-Man, of all characters, so persistent? Bendis liked to tell a story about the creation of Miles, one that involved fellow comics creator David Walker (who is African-American) telling him that when he was a child, he could play as Spider-Man because under that mask, he could be anyone.
Phil Lord, one of the co-writers here, merges an introduction and origin for Miles with his broader “spider-verse” story, at times imperfectly. His secret weapons in the latter are the movie’s two best alternate Spider-people: Jake Johnson’s “Peter B.Parker,” a middle-aged pot-bellied version who let the stresses of his job get to him, and Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), also known as Spider-Gwen in the comics, a version of the character from a universe where Gwen Stacy (Peter Parker’s famous girlfriend who died in the 1970s and defined a generation of comics) was bitten and her best friend, Peter Parker, was killed.
But the gang’s all here. In addition to those two, we get Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and Spider-Ham (John Mulaney). Each arrives with a different corresponding animation style and sense of humor (noir, anime, and classic Looney Tunes), and their bits are inspired. They’re such a highlight that the down-to-Earth Miles story and the broader, ADD-style of “everything in the pot” comedy of the Spider-Verse stuff just never feels like a perfect mixture. Tonal whiplash abounds. (However, none of this is confusing in the movie.)
My feelings about how well Lord and company mixed the Miles story and the Spider-Verse story probably comes down to personal taste; it never feels arbitrary or forced, at least. Thematically, the two play off each other really well. It may be that I liked the two individually enough that I would’ve enjoyed a theme of either / or, rather than both. Your experience will vary.
The only warning that comes through this review is the animation style. A team of 140 (!) animators worked on the project, and their work is fascinating. It’s a hybrid of cel-shaded animation and comic book pop-art. Sometimes it looks really odd and off-putting and I can’t imagine it will be popular with all audiences. We thought maybe a 3-D lens cap had been accidentally left on the projector. There’s never been anything like it. It’s sure as hell unique. It lends itself to sight gags and cutaways but also some really emotional moments for Miles. It is as close to an actual comic as I’ve seen on screen. I didn’t love it, but I appreciate it.
I did love, however, the fact that we have an animated Spider-Man movie that engages with the overall mythology of Spider-Man and with what makes the character so enduring and popular. And I love the fact that Miles Morales has had his day on screen. His Uncle Aaron appeared in Spider-Man: Homecoming, and perhaps one day we’ll see a live-action version of Miles in one of the MCU movies. But I’m much more curious to see where Sony Animation takes this version of the character, perfected at last, into the future.